US president Donald Trump has said he is “concerned” about the risk of a violent Chinese crackdown in Hong Kong, as protesters prepare for another weekend of rallies and demonstrations.
Trump said he would soon be talking to the Chinese president Xi Jinping on the phone and urged him to negotiate directly with pro-democracy protesters.
“I am concerned,” he told reporters in New Jersey en route to a campaign rally. “I would be willing to bet that if he sat down with the protesters … I’ll bet he’d work it out in 15 minutes.” Trump added, “I know it’s not the kind of thing he does.”’
The previous day, Trump had linked a possible trade deal with Beijing to a peaceful resolution to the political unrest that has roiled the semi-autonomous Chinese territory.
The US president’s interventions come amid heightened tension between protesters in Hong Kong and the Chinese government in Beijing, as pro-democracy protests enter their 11th week.
A rally on Friday that has been sanctioned by police is aimed at calling on the UK to declare that China has breached the terms of the handover, and for the US to impose sanctions on Chinese officials in charge of Hong Kong.
On Friday it emerged that five people aged between 20 and 22 had been arrested for pulling down a Chinese flag and throwing it into the sea. The incident occurred during protests in Victoria Harbour on 3 August.
In recent weeks, People’s Liberation Army (PLA) troops have gathered on the border in a show of force. Images taken by AFP on Thursday showed thousands of Chinese military personnel waving red flags and parading at a sports stadium in the city of Shenzhen, just across the border from Hong Kong.
Dozens of armoured personnel carriers and supply trucks were also parked nearby.
On Thursday night, the Chinese ambassador to the UK issued Beijing’s most pointed threat yet to pro-democracy protesters, warning that it has “enough solutions and enough power to swiftly quell unrest” should it deem the situation “uncontrollable”.
The ambassador accused “extremists” of posing as as pro-democracy activists and said Beijing was not prepared “to sit on its hands and watch”.
There were violent scenes at Hong Kong airport earlier this week when a sit-in by protesters descended into clashes with police and an attack on a Chinese reporter accused of being a spy. Protesters, who have remained largely peaceful during previous demonstrations, issued an apology for their behaviour.
Tensions about brutal police tactics have increased over the past week after a woman was shot in the eye by a suspected beanbag round fired by police.
As the rhetoric ramped up on Thursday, US national security adviser John Bolton said in an interview with VOA that “people in America remember Tiananmen Square”.
He warned China that “it would be a big mistake to create a new memory like that in Hong Kong,” referring to the deadly 1989 crackdown on protesters in Beijing.
His comments were seized upon by Chinese media as an example of America “grossly interfering” in Beijing’s affairs. “Washington simply has no ability to influence Beijing’s attitude toward the situation in Hong Kong,” an editorial in nationalistic Chinese tabloid the Global Times said.
“If Hong Kong cannot really restore the rule of law through its own strength, and the riots in Hong Kong will intensify, then the central government will take measures directly in accordance with the Basic Law,” it warned.
The Basic Law, Hong Kong’s mini constitution, allows the government to request the PLA’s assistance for maintaining public order.
Protesters in Hong Kong – who have five key demands, including democratic reforms and the withdrawal of a controversial extradition bill that would allow suspects to be sent to the mainland – are preparing for new rallies on the weekend.
On Saturday three rallies are scheduled across the city and on Sunday a large demonstration, which has been refused a permit by the Hong Kong authorities, will be held in the city centre.
Protest groups have also called for Hong Kong residents to withdraw $10,000 from their bank accounts to place a strain on the economy of the special administrative region.
The Hong Kong protests were sparked by opposition to a plan to allow extraditions to the mainland, but have since morphed into a wider call for democratic rights.
The movement represents the greatest challenge to Beijing’s authority since the city was handed back by the British in 1997 under a deal that allowed it to keep freedoms that many Hong Kongers feel are being eroded.